Scientists Explore Dramatic Changes Expected from Nanofabrication
A trio of top scientists predicted that nanofabrication in the decades ahead could have an array of uses in daily life, from the development of molecular electronics and optics to the creation of artificial muscles.
During an online cyberchat sponsored by the EurekAlert! science news service, Ray Baughman, director of the NanoTech Institute and Robert A. Welch Professor of Chemistry at the University of Texas at Dallas, said that beside the potentially dramatic impact it could have on medical care in the next 20 years, the use of nanotechnology will enable expanded use of electronic textiles.
"The introduced features could include energy storage in the textiles, electronic circuits woven into the textiles, displays that are part of the textiles, and artificial muscles that open and close to adjust for textile porosity, and, therefore, increase the comfort level of the wearer," explained Baughman.
That prospect is of special importance for those interested in fabrics and materials that will respond to the environment. For instance, the military is interested in fabrics that can neutralize chemical warfare agents, deliver medicines on demand, and regulate body temperature.
EurekAlert!, a service of AAAS, is the world's premier science-news Web site. The 11 April cyberchat was underwritten by the William T. Golden Endowment Fund for Program Innovation. The full text of the chat can be seen here.
Besides Baughman, participants included Jillian Buriak, the Canada Research Chair in Inorganic and Nanoscale Materials at the University of Alberta and a senior research officer at the University of Alberta's National Institute for Nanotechnology; and Ellen Williams, distinguished university professor at the University of Maryland and the director of the University of Maryland Materials Research Science and Engineering Center.
Nanotechnology is the process of building industrial or medical products in the scale of nanometers, or billionths of a meter. A nanoscale object is one having a dimension which is between 100 nanometers and one nanometer, with 100 nanometers measuring about one-thousandth the diameter of a human hair.
Nanotech has drawn enormous interest from industry and the medical fields and generated extensive news coverage because of its many promising applications and because of concerns that it could have an adverse impact on the environment or human health. It already is used to make sunscreen, stain-resistant cloth and flat-screen video monitors; someday it could be used in sensors to detect the presence of chemical or biological agents, to construct more effective bullet-proof vests and to repair or replace a damaged human retina.
Fabrication at the nanoscale is important, explained Baughman, because it enables huge surface-to-volume ratios, which makes it possible to inject an enormous amount of charge into nanoparticles. Among other applications, these giant injections are used to make artificial muscles, for super capacitators for storing energy and for thermal energy harvesting.
But the challenge, according to Buriak, is in producing these nanoscale materials.
"It's certainly is nice to make a material in the lab on a small scale, and discover its properties," she said, "but, in order to turn this into a product, to test if for, for instance, its biological properties, its potential effects on the environment, you need to make substantial quantities of materials, requiring chemists, physicists, biologists, and many others to work together to have control over materials of this size."
One reporter cited the widespread public concern that problems could arise from nanotechnology, comparing it to recent debate on biotechnology and the public's apprehension about corporations making huge profits from genetically modified organisms.
Since nanotechnology is so young, replied Buriak, there are a lot of good questions being raised and good experiments being conducted to test these questions. Her group, for instance, is looking at the stability and long-term behavior of nanoparticles in blood, while others are testing the effects of inhalation of nanomaterials into the lungs.
The hour-long cyber-chat was the third and final segment of a series of online forums on the science of nanotechnology. Earlier discussions focused on the environmental impact of nanotechnology and on medical applications of nanotechnology.
The latest online discussion was moderated by Phillip Szuromi, supervisory senior editor of Science. Ten reporters representing international publications such as Ciencia em Dia (Brazil), El Mercurio (Chile), Le Temps (Switzerland) and Corriere del Ticino (Switzerland), as well as others with an interest in science participated in the forum.
2 May 2005